"The Canadian" - Toronto to
"It is a sunny morning and
hundreds of people are streaming through Toronto's downtown Union Station.
Briefcases are in hand, they have just emerged from commuter trains that pour
into the city every weekday, crammed with office workers from the surrounding
suburbs. I'm heading the other way - out to gate nine and train number one
on the departure board, destination Vancouver, British Columbia, 2766 miles
away on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
I join an eclectic group of
travellers at the gate: backpackers, a tour group from the UK, a bevy of retired
Americans, Japanese tourists, two Amish couples, and a reasonably-sized contingent of Canadians. Once we reach the platform, the backpacking crowd
and a few others head left to the two economy cars at the front of the
train, I turn right and hop aboard the 'Silver and Blue' sleeper car
service, looking for car #129 - my home for the next three
days. One problem; there appears to be no car 129, a mistake with the
numbering I am told. I am shown to Car #128 instead, as we pull out of the
station precisely at 09:00hrs. We head past the 553 meter (1814 foot) CN
Tower, past Skydome, home to Toronto's professional baseball and football teams,
and out toward the western end of the city. The train picks up speed
and I watch as the skyscrapers slowly recede from view and we move into a land
of seemingly endless suburbs. In the meantime... I lay out my gear in my double bedroom. On
the western transcontinental CANADIAN, VIA Rail Canada's flagship route, Silver
and Blue class offers a choice of upper and lower berths, as well as single,
double, and triple bedrooms. My room is comfortable. There are two
chairs, a WC and a small sink. The beds, concealed in the walls, are
lowered by a porter at night.
Now that I'm set up I begin
exploring my new world. Silver and Blue Class patrons have the exclusive
use of the the Canadian's dining cars, lounges, and the celebrated glass-roofed
dome cars. All of these stainless steel art deco-style cars were
introduced in the mid-1950's and drew instant accolades from both railroad
aficionados and the general public. Vogue Magazine devoted most o an issue
the the cars' interiors in 1955. In the late 1980's, Via Rail invested
CAD$200 Million in restoring and upgrading 185 of the cars. Steam was
replaced by electric heat, a shower was added to each sleeping car, and
mechanical components, such as the brakes were overhauled.
I take a seat in one of the four
24-seat dome cars and settle in for a little sightseeing. As the train
heads north, the suburbs eventually give way to farmlands. By late morning
we have entered a new world of island-dotted lakes. This is part of the
Muskoka region, cottage country for Torontonians who seek refuge here on
weekends and during summer vacations from the hurly-burly of city life.
The train slowly winds its way from lake to lake, past cottages with boats tied
up by the water's edge. At lunch I head through a succession of narrow,
zigzagging corridors to the nearest dining car, and join a table with three
other diners. We talk about the state of politics in our countries, the
latest books we've read, and where we're travelling to next as we watch the
scenery roll gently by. The lunch selection includes a quiche with Caesar
salad, stuffed green peppers, or - welcome to Canada - a bison burger. As is
discovered throughout my trip, food on board is generally very good, and the staff
is unfailingly friendly and helpful.
Shortly after lunch we pass over
French River. Three centuries ago this shallow tributary of Georgian Bay,
now designated a Canada Heritage River, was one of the waterways frequented by a
group of explorers from Montreal. Known as Coureurs de Bois - the Runners
of the Wood - these intrepid voyagers paddled canoes laden with goods to trade
with the Amerindians in exchange for beaver pelts, venturing into the Great
Lakes and deep into the vast uncharted land that lay beyond.
... The train travels deeper and
deeper into the Canadian Shield, a massive expanse of exposed Precambrian Rock,
some of the oldest on the planet, that extends all the way to the Arctic and as
far west as the Rocky Mountains. This land of granite and gneiss dates
back billions of years, and the intervening millennia have evolved a complicated
geological story of faulting, folding and compression. But the current
topography owes its biggest debt to the effects of glaciation over the last
million years. A succession of continental glaciers have scoured the ancient
mountain rage, scraping away the topsoil and creating countless depressions that
have since filled in, creating one of the biggest collections of lakes and
swamps on the planet. The vegetation is primarily boreal forest of spruce,
pine, poplar and larch, which blanket the land so thickly it is hard to imagine
the animal denizens such as moose and bear make their way through it. Not
to mention the thousands of underpaid workers who we were saddled with the task of
laying rails along this route through a primeval land in the early 20th
century. With picks and axes and blasting powder they punched holes
through rock walls.
After dinner I head to the dome
car nearest my cabin with my cup of hot tea. The moon has risen now and
casts a dappled glow on the lakes that we pass. Ahead I can see 21 cars
stretching in front of me, a 400-meter long behemoth, arcing this way and that
as the train follows its circuitous route. The lights front the train
illuminate a narrow swath beside the tracks reflecting off the white
birches. But the pine trees are mere dark forms etched against the inky
blackness of the night sky, Above me, the pale smear of the Milky Way
dominates the sky.
A quick nightcap at the bar in
the rear car of the train and I return to my room. During dinner, the
steward has folded down the bed from the wall, laid out the blankets and turned
on my reading lamp. I sit propped up in bed with a magazine, After a
few minutes, I turn off the light and look out through the window at the foot of
my bed. Outside, the woods are as poet Robert Frost put it, "lovely, dark and deep".
At breakfast I'm back at a table
with my dinner companions from the previous night. While the waitress
brings us our pancakes, sausages and morning coffee we chat and look out the
windows on an even more awesome collection of lakes than the previous day.
The woods here are home to large numbers of bear and moose.
I spot the telltale mark of
beavers near the tracks - neatly gnawed trees that they will use to build the
beaver lodges where they will spend the winter.
A sign on the north side of the
tracks announces that, after 1800 kilometers and 30 hours on the rails we have
left the vast province of Ontario and entered Manitoba. Soon, the
landscape changes. First it is the lakes and the rocky outcroppings - our
constant companions for the past day - which begin to disappear. Then the
track straightens out, stretching for miles without the slightest bend.
Fields appear, some with rich black earth. Slowly, miraculously, we emerge
from the Canadian Shield into a world that becomes progressively flatter and
flatter. The trees are also receding from view and by mid-afternoon we are
travelling into the beginning of plains that extend west for hundreds of
kilometers, through Saskatchewan, the neighboring province, and into
Alberta. Canadians know this land as the Prairies and it is among the most
fertile patches in Canada - in the summer, a scene of endless fields of
wheat. We cross a causeway and stop for an hour at Winnipeg, yet another
Canadian city that owes its birth to the fur trade and the railway. Beyond
the Manitoba capital, the flatness of the land is extraordinary, stretching off
as far as the eye can see; only the occasional farm of grain elevators - tall
storage silos - break the view. Locals call this "big Sky
Country" and its true. The vaulting dome above us seems much vaster
than anything I've ever seen in Eastern Canada.
This being early November, I opt
for an early night and head to my bedroom. On the way I stop for a little
post-dinner conversation in a dome car. One of the glories of train travel
is the people you meet along the way. Maybe its the type of traveller
drawn to moving at a leisurely pace, rather than people who can't wait to get
where they are going, but this trip introduces me to an interesting group.
People like Keith, and his stories of surveying the Arctic regions of Canada;
Don, the court reporter from Los Angles, and his tales of the lesser deeds of
Hollywood stars; Dutch, the retired conductor, and anecdotes from his years
riding the rails through Canada. By the time this trip is over, I know I
am going to miss some of them.
Back in my room... I feel
wonderfully snug and happy. The sky has cleared and the stars are out in
force, as well as some strange lights that flash up into the sky all along the
northern horizon. Aurora Borealis, the northern lights. I am
mesmerized by it and though part of me feels like nodding off to sleep , I
continue to watch the celestial display as the train thunders along through the
night on its north-westerly arc through Saskatchewan.
By the time I get up we have
sailed clear through Saskatchewan and entered Alberta. Light dawns on a
new landscape of rolling hills. This is one of the appeals of rail travel;
the speed is slow enough to have you constantly wondering what lies just around
the next bend and yet fast enough to present a continually changing panorama.
Just after sunrise the train
pulls into Edmonton for a one-hour pit-stop. Not enough time to head out to
the West Edmonton Mall, with 800 stores, a skating rink, an amusement park and
the World's fastest indoor roller coaster. But that's fine, I'm itching for the
train to leave because the next leg will take us to the Rocky Mountains.
...I begin to make out the
mountains, their snow-covered form disappearing seamlessly into a leaden-gray
sky. We follow the shores of the Athabasca River into Jasper, passing a
group of four elk along the way.
We reach Jasper at 14:00 and stop
for an hour. After a quick tour I hop back on the train and we set off. Soon we are
climbing, snaking our way through the mountains and heading toward Yellowhead
pass. The weather conditions are changing almost upon the instant with fog
that drifts by and clouds that scud across the landscape. One moment I am
looking at a mountain peak, a minute later it is no longer there, making me
wonder whether I ever saw it in the first place. By now it is standing
room only in the rear dome car. We follow the shore of Moose Lake.
Its bluish-green waters provide a sombre double image of mountain peaks that
fade away into the fog and clouds. Soon we cross Yellowhead Pass [named
for a local bird] on the
continental divide, the point from which all waters flow either west to the
Pacific, north to the Arctic Ocean or east to the Atlantic. This also
marks our entry into the last of the five provinces on our journey, British
Columbia. Now all eyes are peeled for Mount Robson - at 3954 meters
(13,000feet) the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. We think we spot it
several times but no one seems sure. Ahead, the sky has actually begun to
clear on the horizon and the setting sun begins to peek through. Someone
calls out "There's Robson!". I turn around expecting to see a peak
slightly higher than the others. But no - this mountain towers above the
rest, a mammoth snow-covered form that stretches impossibly high into the
sky. The timing is perfect. The dying rays of sunlight shine on
Robson, bathing it briefly in a rosy hue, as though the sun has singled it out
from the rest of the mountains that cluster around it. Many of the people
in the car have travelled far and wide in the world but all are
speechless. Someone starts clapping and the whole car erupts with a round
of applause. I think of the romantic poets of the early 19th century and
their concept of the sublime - something that quite literally takes your breath
away. For a few moments this day, I have experienced the sublime.
I sleep well that night.
Arriving at the dining car at 06:30 the next day, I eat a quick meal of porridge
and head back to my room. The train is scheduled to arrive in Vancouver in
an hour. I pack my bag and sit and watch out of my window as we hug the
shores of the muddy, salmon-rich waters of the Fraser River snaking its way into
Vancouver. Many visitors to Canada rate this city as their favourite
destination; and with good reason. Situated on the Pacific Ocean and
rimmed by an impressive backdrop of mountain peaks, it is one of North America's
most beautifully located cities - and a fitting end to my journey. I take
a last look around at my home for the previous three days, and head outside into
the fresh morning air."